A Tangled Web

April 01, 1999 6 min read

There’s big business in online school data-but buyer beware.

Many states are mass-producing data as a way to hold schools accountable.

Officials of the Evanston/Skokie, Illinois, school district were not amused when their schools mistakenly received the lowest rating last fall on a free World Wide Web site designed to help home buyers. As it turned out, a computer-programming error had thrown off the school-rating calculations, which were posted on the official site of the National Association of Realtors.

The error was quickly corrected, and the well-regarded district, which is home to Northwestern University, received the site’s top ranking. But the incident dramatizes the perils-and potential-that await schools and consumers as more groups discover the big business of customized school data. Web users can easily find any number of sites when shopping for schools, headhunting for principals and teachers, or scouting for reform models. “The ability to take and manipulate data is astronomically greater than it was a few years ago,” says John McLaughlin, president of the Education Industry Group, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, company that monitors investment trends in education-related ventures. “Now, with a $2,000 personal computer and the right software, you in business.”

But as residents of the 7,000-student Evanston/Skokie district can attest, school data should be eyed with a “buyer beware” mentality. Data can be available on a reputable site but still not be true. And accurate information is often easily misinterpreted. Officials at the College Board in New York City, for example, discourage judging school quality by SAT scores, the college-entrance exam it sponsors, even though that data is readily available. “It says nothing about the quality of the educational tools provided to students,” says Janice Gam, the College Board’s associate director of public affairs. One problem is that the percentage of students taking such tests varies by school, which in turn affects average scores.

Nevertheless, data packages about schools and districts are a hot commodity, and one reason is that states are mass-producing information as part of a national movement to hold schools more accountable for how well they do their jobs. More school performance information is available than ever before. And it is easy to obtain. Some 26 states will post school report cards on the Web by the end of this year. And there is nothing to stop businesses or nonprofit groups from repackaging the data for their clients or the public.

Not surprisingly, the availability of all that data has attracted entrepreneurs. “I see this as a growing business,” says Criss Cloudt, the associate state education commissioner for policy planning and research in Texas. And though there is potential for misuse, Cloudt says the concern is outweighed by the public’s right to know: “In such an important business as education, the word must get out.”

The largest, and potentially most lucrative, audience for school data is parents-a fact that has not escaped San Francisco entrepreneur Steve Rees. In 1997, Rees published a guide to help parents in the San Francisco Bay area pick between schools in their districts, which California allows. Last summer, he started School Wise Press hoping to tap into a broader market. The online service offers free profiles of California’s 8,000 public schools. For $6, parents can get more-detailed reports of up to 12 pages, with information and comparisons on enrollment, class sizes, student-to-computer ratios, and test scores. School Wise Press relies on numbers collected by the state, but Rees promises to get the data online before the state does. His Web site gets between 20,000 to 30,000 visitors a month.

At least two other California groups provide data for free: Ed-Data, a coalition of education groups, including the state department of education; and the nonprofit Great, which currently provides information on schools only in the Bay area but plans to expand.

As scores of school-data Internet sites crop up nationwide, the most difficult task may be standing out amid the competition. Packaging the information in innovative ways helps, but it could also lead to problems. For example, the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors rates schools across the nation through its “Find a Neighborhood” Internet service, which is where the Evanston schools’ error appeared. The manner through which it gets its data appears to be a tangled web, indeed. NAR is managed by Real Select Inc. of Thousand Oaks, California. RealSelect, in turn, gets its Internet data on a variety of neighborhood issues from Taconic Data Corp. of Valhalla, New York. Taconic gets its school statistics from the San Diego-based company 2001Beyond and then calculates the school ratings. The ratings are based on pupil-teacher ratios, SAT and ACT scores, spending, rates of college-bound students, and the number of National Merit finalists. (Taconic took responsibility for the Evanston error.)

Another of the nation’s leading sources of school data, National School Reporting Services Inc. of Stamford, Connecticut, plans to provide data on private and religious schools. It already posts free reports on public schools on its Web site. The 10-year-old company was bought last fall by Central Newspapers Inc., a Phoenix-based chain, and is now part of the company’s real estate services branch, Meanwhile, SchoolMatch, a research and data firm in Westerville, Ohio, has decided to add to its data collection. In an effort to get an “independent analysis,” it recently added an online survey on high schools for parents and students to complete. The survey will complement the company’s school reports, which range in price from $10 to $34 when ordered from its Web site. Jeff Glaze, manager for consulting services for SchoolMatch, says the company has not yet decided what it will do with the new survey information.

Though most groups are tapping the surfeit of school information to peddle data to parents, others are finding some altruistic uses. In Austin, Texas, the nonprofit agency Just for the Kids has used state data to compare schools with demographically similar enrollments but different achievement levels. The group went online last month with profiles of the state’s 2,000 elementary schools.

Academic Management Inc., a business started last fall by former Texas Deputy Commissioner of Education David Stamman, produces a $150 software package that lets users access and graph several years of data on schools and districts state wide. Some schools use Stamman’s product to identify similar schools that perform well academically and then locate job candidates.

Serious users of school information need more than raw statistics-they also need data on curriculum and school climate, some education experts say. And that’s harder to assemble. Outfits like SchoolMatch are recognizing this with efforts to collect independent information. But Russell French, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, argues that state agencies need to take a role in this as well by joining forces with outside groups in collecting and reporting such data. This will help to secure more accurate information by overcoming data-collecting obstacles such as personnel and funding shortages. And it should help to keep schools, like those in the Evanston/Skokie district, in the rankings where they belong.

--Robert C. Johnston